Contrarian LibrariansPosted: 23 Feb 2011
Hack Library School recently had an interview with Maggie Johnson. As a senior librarian at Los Angeles Public Library she discussed how budget cuts are affecting the library. In this short TMI (two-minute interview) Maggie talked about the sad fact that a lot of libraries do not have the funding to hire new LIS professionals. This is bad for anyone currently pursuing a LIS degree, but it is also bad for libraries that will miss out on a whole generation of librarians.
A lot of my fellow students are going to end up working outside of a library setting – taking all their new ideas, technological knowledge and excitement for innovation somewhere else. In my view, this condemns libraries to continual struggling under the old paradigm.
As I have been thinking about this interview, I can not help but wonder if there might, at least, be a silver lining here. Now hear me out. I do not want to see libraries fail, but I do want to see more awareness about the usefulness of LIS professionals. I encounter a lot of people who ask me why they need librarians now that there is Google. Of course, the reasons are myriad and all of us in the profession know them – but why does this question persist? I think (hope) that as LIS professionals begin to branch out and impact other areas – publishing, editing, design, writing, media, etc – we put ourselves in position to become so much more than we are currently considered. The more LIS professionals impact other disciplines, the more we can bring people back to the library. Even bad situations have their benefits. It just requires a little creativity and a willingness to try something new (and maybe fail!). We live in an age defined by information, connectivity and collaboration – all things that LIS professionals traffic in on a daily basis.
This brings me around to the very notion of a library. For those LIS graduates lucky enough to get a job in a library, I urge you to enter it with a radically different mindset. I think that what I would like to see is a strong group of “Contrarian Librarians.”* By this I mean LIS professionals who stand a bit outside the norm. They question and challenge not to annoy but to “disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by doing so, open the road to possible new worlds.”** I would argue that change has always started from this position. Great ideas are often initially considered weird and they sometimes fail a few times before they take hold.
The role libraries will play in the future is a hot topic these days. No doubt they are going to have to change and adapt – and I’m talking beyond social media, virtual worlds and Web 2.0. Embracing these is a given. Going to the library will have to become a richer experience. Libraries no longer have a hold over information like they did in the past and, because of this, they need to foster collaboration, community interaction and creativity as well.
There will always be the need for books and quiet space, but what about collaborative space where local artists, writers, activists, musicians, designers, etc can get together to work on projects and share ideas? Why are libraries not lending more than just books? Anything that will benefit the community is fair game – bikes, musical instruments and recording/editing devices are just a few of the easy examples. How about some programs where people (this would be great for kids) in the community collaborate to write and illustrate books that they can then sell to patrons via some sort of print-on-demand scheme? How come more libraries do not host Farmers’ Markets where they can set up their own booth and engage the passionate citizens who shop there? Is a monthly “art night” out of the question? Ask for a modest donation, serve cheese and crackers and let the community browse local works of art. The library could even take a bit of the selling fee. Focus on different groups every month – local schools, nearby university and community colleges, local professional artists. Here is one of my favorite ideas that would not be very difficult to implement: The Social Physical Library. The possibilities are really endless. Is there something that is missing in your community? Why can’t the library provide it? Some ideas will be better than others, some will fail miserably. But a few might just stick. And that is how libraries will move forward.
Frank Chimero recently tweeted something that I think all new LIS professionals and students should keep in mind:
*A Google search for “Contrarian Librarians” leads to this blog by the same name.
**This quote is taken from Lewis Hyde’s fantastic book Trickster Makes This World.
Of course, the perennial question about funding comes up here again. If libraries can not even hire new graduates, how are the few that get hired going to make new changes? The answer: I don’t know, but they have to. If the traditional methods of obtaining funding have or are failing, then let’s look somewhere else. How about trying some Kickstarter projects? If $62,000 can be raised for Detroit to get a Robocop, surely some creative ideas can help bring some $$ and support to a library.
Book sales are great but maybe some libraries need to put in (gasp) coffee shops where people can gather (remember libraries need to embrace the idea of a community space). Why is Starbucks packed every time I go there but large sections of the library sit vacant?
This post is meant as a starting-off point for my thinking about the future of LIS professionals and libraries. Input welcome.
Note: some interesting Kickstarter projects to check out.